Wild Fire – How To Avoid Becoming a Climate Refugee

Eagle, ID Fire - plane drops retardant on homes

For many of us, living under a canopy of trees out of earshot of the closest neighbor is a dream. However, that dream can quickly become a nightmare if the persistent threat of wildfire isn’t considered. Unfortunately, in recent years a growing number of people have seen their Eden turn into a hellish nightmare when wildfire comes a calling.

The wildland urban interface, or WUI as it is commonly referred to, is the transition zone where human development intermingles with undeveloped wildland. In the last few decades, the WUI has grown exponentially as more people move into that space and away from towns and urban centers.

Most of us think wildfire is a problem for those living in the Western US or Canada. But under the right conditions wildfire can erupt anywhere. Look at the recent fire in Maui. (And no, it wasn’t caused by blue lasers, energy beams or whatever the conspiracy theorists are peddling.)

Even in late winter, areas that rarely see uncontrollable fires, like what happened in Texas earlier this year, are being hit hard. That killer fire burned over a million acres in the panhandle area of the state.

What’s to blame

The facts on fire are undeniable. Wildland fire is becoming more dangerous and destructive for two main reasons, drought and the ever growing urban interface. Drought seems obvious. But how does a growing urban interface contribute to its own demise? People.

Here’s a sobering stat. In 2022, people were responsible for 87 percent of wildland fires. Simply, the more people living in the woods, the greater chances of them burning it down. Look at it this way, if you’re a people, which I’ll assume you are, then you’re the biggest part of the problem.

So when someone tries to convince you the increase in fires is due to things like less logging, beetle kill, etc., you can look them in the eye and say, no, you are the problem. And you’ll be correct. Each of us is our own greatest enemy when it comes to fire (and a lot of other stuff too, apparently).

For example, last summer my neighbor was using a smoker on his bees to calm them down while he checked on their hive. Some of the smoldering material used in the smoker fell onto the ground. The neighbor stomped on the ember and concluded he had extinguished it.

Later that evening, he looked out his window to check the area before going to bed and noticed a fire was just popping up. This was about 10 pm. He raced to his tractor and created a line around the fire, but not before it burned nearly a quarter acre of tall grass. The leader of the responding fire crew told him that bee smokers are a common cause of fires.

But fire is our friend, right?

Who doesn’t like the comforting warmth of a fire, whether it is in a campfire ring, a wood stove or a propane fueled piece of deck furniture. But that is part of our problem with fire. Mentally we view fire like we would a close friend, one that is comforting, reliable and never acts up. Fire provides light, warmth, and safety from the darkness. Fire is relaxing and hypnotic.

In reality fire is like an evil selfish toddler that doesn’t care about you and only behaves when you’re watching it. Most of us never see this dark side of our friend. So we take it for granted, thinking it’s not really as dangerous as some make it out to be. Then we leave a smoldering campfire unattended in the woods and it burns down 50,000 acres. Opps.

Never take fire for granted. It is unforgiving.

Steps to fireproof your property

If you live in the urban interface zone or plan on building in one, make room in your budget for fuel reduction projects. There will come a time when you’ll thank yourself.

I own wooded property in the Pacific Northwest, and fire is my biggest concern. It’s not a matter of if a fire will burn through my property, but when.

But I don’t plan on waiting around for the inevitable to happen. The work I put into fire prevention now will determine how much damage I suffer later when the inevitable happens.

Visit your state Department of Natural Resources website. They might have programs (and available money) to help you with reducing your fire vulnerability. In my state they even have a program where the DNR will compensate you for your labor in reducing fuels on your land.

Here are some sites with information on how to fireproof your home and property:

Smokeybear.com – includes some straightforward steps for fireproofing your property

Firewise.org – an in depth description of how to fireproof your property

FEMA Wildfire protection – another source for mitigating fire risk around your home

InciWeb – Zoom in on the map to see the most up to date current wildfire activity. If there is a fire near you, keep an eye on this site.

Additional steps to protect your land

image of extreme amount of fuel for a fire
There is no stopping a fire with this amount of ground fuel.

Create a fire line along your property boundary

Remove small trees and brush in a six to ten foot swath along your property line. If your property has a ridge through it do the same along the ridge line.

Remove branches ten feet up on trees

Low hanging branches are referred to as ladder fuel. Removing these low branches prevents a fire from climbing into the tree and setting off a crown fire. The last thing you want is a crown fire ripping through your land.

Clear brush and small trees on both sides of your lane

Your driveway through a wooded area is already a great fire line, so why not expand it further.

Make mutual aid agreements with neighbors

Plan ahead to help one another during emergencies. This can include sharing firefighting equipment. My neighbor recently approached me about putting a little fire trailer together. He has an old trailer, a generator and a 275 gallon water tote to get us started. The neighbor’s fire from last summer was a wake up call for us.

Learn how not to become a climate refugee due to drought.

Respond to a fire, don’t react to it

You’re going to respond to the threat of a fire coming your way, you’re not going to react to it. There is a big difference between the two. Responding means you have a pre-determined plan in place that you will use to base your decisions on. You stay calm and act decisively. Reacting to a fire is the opposite. You might as well throw yourself into a volcano because the terror and pain will be less than what a raging fire will do with you.

But you’re proactive, so that means having a plan now for a wildfire scenario down the road. Prepping is key. Fire and law personnel will have their hands full, so don’t be the reason they have to risk their lives because you didn’t plan ahead. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Planning ahead for wildfire helped save this home

Here’s a thought provoking list of items to prepare:

Identify escape routes – As in plural. If fire or obstacles block one you have at least one badckup.

Determine meetup locations – Choose one or two places where everyone knows to meet.

Keep a go bag ready – Clothes, cash, medicine, mask, water, food, important docs, etc.

Stay informed – Fire behavior changes frequently. Have a weather/emergency radio as part of your preps.

Evacuate early – Guess what, fire has been known to move faster than evacuation orders. Use common sense. So the fire is on the other side of the ridge. Okay, there’s no need to rush – said one too many victims.

Practice your preps – You don’t rise to the occasion, you drop to your level of training. It’ll take longer than you think to get both your teenage daughter and the cat in the car.

Fire season is upon us, but its not too late to start preparing. As an ex wildland firefighter, I can tell you that even a little fire prevention effort can mean the difference between a close call and a disaster.

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